The notion of female serial killers often appears as the minority of cases in the history of serial murder and serial killers. It's as if there is a part of society that refuses to believe that women are just as capable of mass murder as some of the more horrific murderers of our time. Still, while we may not, off the top of our head, be able to list as many female serial killers as we can male ones, it is but a myth that female serial killers are far and few between.
History is riddled with stories of female temptresses and murderers, like the legendary Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who murdered women for fun, then bathed in their blood to retain her beauty. There is also the story of the Black Widows of Liverpool; a group of women in 1884 who were deemed by the Home Office as "certain [to have] committed several other similar murders and there is reason to believe that crime of this kind is far from rare" (Brabin, pg1).
Nevertheless, society personifies the serial killer as being a male, save, perhaps for one or two notorious female serial killers that are still relatively new compared to Bathory and the Black Widow gang. Take for example, Aileen Wuornos who preyed on truck drivers at truck stops in Florida, or even more recently, Karla Homolka, one half of the deadly 'Ken and Barbie' murderers. "Women have been murdering serially for as long as men, though their victims are usually family members or acquaintances, and they most often choose poison over other means of disposal"(MacLeod, Chapter 1).
For society to equate murder, let alone serial killing to a woman, is probably the hardest thing to do. These days, media coverage almost 'desensitises' us against violent acts, and words like 'homicide' and 'multiple victims' seem to be an everyday occurance in our vocabulary. Nevertheless, women are still perceived as the gentler; more nurturing of the sexes, which may account for the difficulty we have in not only comprehending female serial killers but also recognizing them.
For example, many of us are familiar with at least four serial killers, and usually they are - Ted Bundy, Gacy, Dahmer and Jack the Ripper. We may recognize others, if for the sole reason we were warned of their modus operandi, as in the Nightstalker and his perchance for brunettes, or David Berkowitz' summer stalking in the 1970s. If we were not made aware of these killers because of the media coverage at the time, we are made aware of them now from the number of films and documentaries that showcase these criminal sociopaths. Even the popular film "Copy Cat" highlighted a cavalcade of notorious serial killers, and all of them were male.
Female serial killers have seen very little media coverage or spotlight, predominantly because they don't fit the mold. Women are seen as nurturers, or the more compassionate of the sexes. In the case of Countess Bathory, "it is likely that as many as 650 women and girls, some as young as twelve years of age, lost their lives to her bloodlust" (Noe, Chapter2). Hardly the actions of a compassionate woman, Bathory's murderous history was at the time, considered, in a nutshell, nobody's business. During the 16th Century, peasants were considered beneath nobility, and despite many women and girls showing physical signs of Bathory's abuse (before their murder), nobody did anything. It was only when she was forced to approach the King for repayment of loans, was her murderous habit brought to an end.
There is a social fascination with serial killers, and in many cases, it can be argued that this fascination is an extension of a particular serial killers personality. Many people commented on the quiet and handsome nature of the Nightstalker, while others have said that Dahmer was also a handsome and funny man. Much of these characteristics were also part of their MO in searching out their victims, as well as a 'game' to lure them. Dahmer hunted for his victims at nightclubs and places frequented by the gay community.
Ted Bundy was intellectual and able to seduce an estimated 40+ women to their deaths.
In the cases of women serial killers, nobody has made any similar comments regarding their characteristics or nature. Rather it has been slightly ignored, maybe as a security blanket in protecting the social collective from believing that "women who kill find extreme solutions to problems that thousands of women cope with in more peaceable ways from day-to-day" (Strange, 1999).
In the case of Aileen Wuornos, the prostitute serial killer that preyed on truck drivers in Florida, her characteristics did not fascinate anyone, rather "she is both repellent and strangely pathetic. Her belligerence all but sealed her fate from the moment she was apprehended, and inspired contempt in most whom encountered her or heard of her case." (Macleod). On top of her preposterous accounts of having slept with over 250,000 men, and the bizarre behavior in the courtroom, Wuornos was adopted by a woman, Arlene Pralle, during her trial who contacted Wuornos because "Jesus told me to write you."
Pralle and Wuornos told anyone who was eager to listen of Wuornos' troubled upbringing and the "corruption and complicity at anyone who was handy -- the agents proffering the book and movie deals, the detectives, the attorneys and, especially, Tyria Moore" (Macleod). Wuornos was handed six life-sentences, and in October, 2002 was given lethal injection by the state of Florida.
Female serial killers are just as despicable as their male counterparts, and society has a little trouble coming to grips with that, especially when it involves the most nurturing of female roles - nurses. "One of the more chilling cases was that of Kristen Gilbert, a 30-year-old nurse indicted in 1998 for murdering four of her patients and attempting to kill three others by injecting them with epinephrine" (Pyrek, pg1).
Here we have the scenario of a healthcare worker breaching the unspoken trust between a nurse and patient, and to boot, is a woman we may otherwise feel comforted by and look to in times of emergency. There is no logical explanation we can come up with that would have prevented Gilbert from being able to gain trust to commit these murders. In fact, her MO, is very much similar (in respects to the redeeming characteristics) of the more notorious Bundy, De Salvo and Dahmer. "The Gilbert killings are some of at least 35 other serial murders committed by healthcare personnel (mainly nurses, but also including a respiratory therapist and several physicians) since the mid- 1970s" (Pyrek).
Alarmingly "serial killers in healthcare appear to come in basically one of five guises: those who kill out of mercy, those who want to feel like God, those who kill for an erotic thrill, those who are mentally ill, and those who just feel overburdened" (Pyrek). In a place where we expect to find medical comfort and respite from our ailments, serial killers abound - and not all of them are male doctors or nurses. Many of them are female healthcare professionals and nurses, which brings to light the juxtaposition that female serial killers could be one of the victims of their own crimes.
Consider this: women tend to be more nurturing, and gentle compared to men. They protect their children with the fervor a lion, but also comfort them with the gentleness accustomed to motherhood. In the case of Wuornos, we could take pity on her for not really having a chance at life from the get-go; and in the case of Kristen Gilbert, we could, perhaps also feel sorry for her more than say, Dahmer, Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy. While they show signs of mental instability or social repression, we abhor their crimes, and their methods because there was no rhyme or reason, outside of the serial killer's own mind. We consider them sociopaths and murderers.
But do we consider this because they are male and therefore should be able to handle these pressures of life? Rather than truly the nature of the crime than the beast that has committed it?
For all the recent scholarly and popular interest in murderous women, historical and contemporary evidence confirms that when women are involved in killings, they are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators" (Strange). Women are quite capable of being a victim, just as men are, though we seem to show little pity towards male victims. We tend to show more empathy in these situations, which may account for our perception of female serial killers.
Men may choose to engage in particular solutions to their problems, without being able to carry them out" (Muncie, Chapter21). Nevertheless, women are made more aware of the social obstacles they must face at an earlier age, and in turn, "they are sensitized to greater social condemnation of female aggressiveness" (Muncie).
In the case of the Liverpool Black Widows, these women chose a passive…